In March of 2007, I wrote a note to the staff here about the emergence of a new health blog that I thought had the potential to upend the health reporting world. The outlet was the WSJ Health Blog, and it promised to marry the Journal’s excellent reporting with a certain degree of take-no-prisoners snark and honesty. The Health Blog’s first writer, Jacob Goldstein, told me early on that his charge was to write “all of the things that we know as true but can’t really say in the paper.”
It was half-threat, half-promise. Jacob was cranking out a half-dozen posts on a busy day, covering the silly and the serious, and leaving no stone unturned. Outrageous executive compensation was called outrageous. Goofy television commercials were called goofy. Drug reps were compared to Faustus. And the perspective of everyone from key researchers to hospital CEOs were put on display. It was a fun read and an important read. Everyone tuned in.
That was 2007. Jacob is long gone. So is his boss, Scott Hensley (who has brought the spirit of Health Blog to NPR’s Shots blog). Over time, the blog became understaffed, and the tone had slowly morphed from a saucy, comprehensive teller of truths to a good-but-not-great source for basic consumer health news, with a handful of biopharma briefs. Yesterday, the WSJ announced that they were killing the endeavor after a 5-year-run.
The Health Blog helped create the modern health-reporting landscape, and it’s hard not to see echoes of Jacob and Scott’s original vision in Shots, in the online work that Matt Herper does at Forbes, in newspaper health blogs in places like Boston and Los Angeles. (And I was remiss in not noting Ed Silverman’s Pharmalot here in my initial draft. Pharmalot wasn’t directly influenced by Health Blog — it launched actually launched just ahead of the Health Blog in the heady late-winter of 2007 — but the competition between the two unquestionably strengthened the pharma media as a whole. Pharmalot is still going strong, a testament to the power of Ed’s years of focus.)
But good work and an impressive parent outlet is no guarantee of lasting success. The Health Blog outlasted the New York Times’ Prescriptions effort (shuttered in February) as well as health blogging efforts at USA Today.
And while we should take a moment to look back and mourn what was and could have been, there are three mammoth lessons for those of us on the marketing/communications side who are, increasingly, touting brand-created content as the Next Big Thing. But the Health Blog shows that “brand journalism” isn’t as easy as it looks. Here’s why:
- Blogs are Beasts That Must Always Be Fed: Creating great content, day-in-and-day-out, is a tough, tough road. The Wall Street Journal is a jewel in a News Corp. empire that could hit $10 billion in profit this year. They have some of the best writers in the world. And they couldn’t prioritize the blog. Can your company do better?
- People Matter: During salad days at the Health Blog, the blog had a definite voice and a definite perspective, thanks to Jacob and Scott. When they left, some of that voice was lost, and while the writing and reporting remained top-notch, it served as a reminder that the best social media efforts are always associated with a person (Scott Monty at Ford, Frank Eliason at Comcast, even Arianna Huffington at her eponymous news site). Will your brand journalism have a recognizable face?
- Own a Niche: When Health Blog launched, they owned a certain topical niche: the business of health, writ large. This set them apart from what was then — and is now — the much more competitive space of examining every piece of consumer health news. But as time went on, the topics covered were less and less distinct from the offerings of a dozen other reputable sites. And while the quality was never in doubt, the lack of focus meant that there were fewer surprises. If you’re going to get in the content game, what will you be able to provide better than anyone else?
Of course, the archives of the Health Blog are still available, so take a moment today and remember. To get you started, here is the welcome post, from way back in 2007.